Housing & Labor
As no housing was to be had near the site, and no transportation was available from Plymouth, the Company had to provide homes for its workmen. Early in 1825, Spooner signed a contract with Ebenezer Lobdell to build a six-family house for $2400. Each unit was to have a living room, kitchen, pantry, two bedrooms, two fireplaces, a cellar to run under the whole building, and each family to have a garden. The rent of each tenant was $40 a year until 1827 when it was raised to $52. Proper Workmanship was insisted on by Spooner, but there was of course, no plumbing. This strip of homes can still be seen right outside Cordage Commerce Center, across from North Spooner Street.
By October 1825, when the ropewalk had been in production for six months, it was employing people. Most of the names had been familiar in the Old Colony of Plymouth for two centuries: Doten, Osgood, Savery, Slocum, Wadsworth, Cobb and Holmes. The first boys, Elijah Weston, Thomas Carter, Rufus Adams, and Henry Vogel became employed 1826. They signed the traditional indentures by which the apprentice promised, "said Master well and faithfully to serve, his secrets keep, his lawful Commands duly obey." They were not allowed to frequent alehouses or taverns, play cards or dice, contract matrimony or commit acts of vice and immorality. Apprentice boys were given room and board, and given $35 a year until they were twenty-one years old, when they then could have a regular job in the factory. Some were boarded at a neighboring farm for $2 a week including washing and mending, at the expense of the Company. Some of these boys did not view the rope making business with great enthusiasm, as a number of them ran away and few acquired a job with the Company after their terms were expired. One even persuaded his family to pay $50 to break the indenture. A town like Plymouth was full of opportunities in those days to go to sea; the more adventurous boys shipped on a fisherman, coaster or foreign-bound vessel, or went whaling out of New Bedford. However, John Smith was an exception. As an apprentice to the Company in 1829, he was present at the 75th anniversary celebration in 1899. John Donley, an apprentice beginning in 1830 at the age of sixteen, remained with the Company for sixty-six years and just missed the anniversary by a few weeks. The apprentice system lasted a little more than ten years.
The earliest wages paid at the ropewalk were 85 Cents a day for common labor and $1.16 a day for hand spinners. It took some time before these wages were raised, and apparently for some time they were lowered since in 1836 there was a brief strike that was settled back to the $1.16 a day. In the early eighteen-forties, $1.35 was the usual pay.
During the first ten years of the Company's existence it was possible for a family to rent a four-room house for $1 per week, buy pork for $.08 a pound, a barrel of flour for $6.25, butter for $.19 a pound, molasses for $.45 and New England rum for $.48 a gallon. Fuel could be cut for the mere labor of doing it in the nearby oak woods; fishing was free for anyone who could build or borrow a boat; alewives ran up the brooks in the spring in such numbers that every family caught enough salt, dry and pack in wood ashes and a "kentle" of salt codfish, a barrel of salt halibut fins and napes, and a bin of potatoes went far towards carrying a large family through the winter. Every family had room for a henhouse and a vegetable garden. In the absence of modern technology and entertainments that eat up income, people were able to live off of $1.35 per day, for a six-day work week. As seen in the first detailed work schedule that has been preserved from 1852-1853, the longest work day was eleven and a half hours, and the shortest day was seven and three quarters hours. Pay was the same for a long day as a short day.
Until after the Civil War, the only holiday except Sundays were Fast Days (the first Thursday in April), Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The ropewalk was unheated so when the temperature fell below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, work was cancelled. This was not for the comfort of the employees; it was because the tarred yarns became too stuff to work at low temperatures. Days when the plant was closed were called "banyarn" days, when the crew were put on short rations in order to catch up with some over expenditure in their mess. An average of about fifteen banyarn days occurred per year until the first heated building was completed in 1851; it was never practical to heat the ropewalk.
By 1859, after weathering another depression, the Company was employing 118 workers, and by 1860, it reached 140. For the most part, these were still old Yankees from Plymouth or other parts of New England. Very few members of the "Irish invasion" of New England that reached its height after the famine of 1848, came to Plymouth. Spooner began obtaining a few German workmen in 1838 through Sewall & Day of Roxbury, where the principle German colony of New England was located.
In the eighteen-fifties, American labor was trying for a legal ten-hour work day to replace its usual sun-to-sun, twelve-hour day. President Jackson had established the ten-hour day in the Navy Yards as early as 1836, but the movement made very little progress and bills to that effect in Massachusetts were always defeated. In 1853, after a series of meetings the employees of Plymouth Cordage requested Spooner to establish a ten-hour work day through winter and summer in the plant. He did not object, under the conditions that his five principle rivals did the same. The rivals did not agree; but Spooner still came up with a new schedule which was evidently and improvement from their point of view. It goes as followed:
March 21-April 20, Start work 10 minutes before sunrise,
breakfast hour 7:30-8:15, dinner hour 1:00-2:00, knock off at 6:00 p.m.
April 20-August 20, Start work at 5:00 a.m.,
breakfast hour 7:00-7:45, dinner 1:00-2:00, knock off at 6:00 p.m.
August 20-September 21, Same as March 21-April 20.
September 21-March 21- Breakfast before going to work, start at sunrise, dinner hour 12 noon to 12:50, knock off at 8 minutes past sunset.
This works out at 11 1/2 hours for the longest day and 7 3/4 hours for the shortest day. No record of pay scales in the eighteen-fifties seems to have survived.
In 1875, the ten-hour work day was established. Wages ranged from a minimum of $.85 per day to a maximum of $3.75 per day for boys, with an average of $2. In 1892, in compliance with a new Massachusetts law, the weekly hours were reduced to fifty-eight by closing the plant at noon on Saturday. The night shift received a premium in the form of the same pay for three hours less work.
The first sharp change in the composition of labor came in about 1880 with an inflow of Northern Italians. They were doubtless first employed, as immigrants generally were in New England factories, because going wages were no longer sufficiently attractive to the native-born. Some of the Italians were peasants, others had worked in factories Lombardy; but most of them took to rope making quickly and efficiently. Naturally, the newcomers entered the Company at the bottom; the best Germans, Irish, and native-born Yankees in the Company who had been spinners or operatives moved up to be foremen, machinists, or overseers.
In 1924, the employees who had served the Company for twenty-five to fifty-years or more were limited. This is a break down by racial origin from an inspection of the names, which was not strictly accurate since some foreigners Anglicized their names, and some Irish names are not indistinguishable from Scotch or English.
From time to time since 1825, the Company had built tenements of the normal mill-village type for its workers, but in 1899 it started an ambition housing program of very different and superior quality. They built 21 two-family homes of the architecture then vaguely called "colonial". Each family unit consisted of five to seven rooms and a cellar. It also had a modern bathroom, a front lawn with a place for a flower harden, and a back yard big enough to grow vegetables and raise poultry. Electric lighting and central heating plants were installed a few years later. The company also laid sidewalks and a sewage system at its own expense, since the town would not. The rents were moderate and more importantly, the appearance, finish and accommodations of the houses were sought after by the younger business professionals with incomes larger than any factory operative could earn so to live in them gave an employee's family self-respect and standing in the community.
As the company established housing and more reasonable labor hours over the years, other problems were starting to arise. The cost of living was rising, but the wages were not, putting the Plymouth Cordage workers in a very poor position in 1916.
It is safe to say that the Plymouth worker of 1894 to 1900, with $8.10 per week had much better real wages than the 1916 worker with $9 per week. The cost of living, especially in items like lentils, olive oil and macaroni that the Italian workers depended on, increased drastically. The worse is yet to come, but had gone far enough by 1916 to cause real hardship to marginal workers, and they were very uneasy about it.
Wage statistics for Massachusetts industries in 1920, at the time of the great strike in the Lawrence textile mills, indicated that Plymouth's rate of 16.6 cents per hour (the rate of 1912-1916), was slightly lower than wages paid in the textile industry (17.8 cents) and well below those paid in the boot and shoe industry (28.2 cents), and the electric industry (26.3). However, the Plymouth Cordage rents were much lower than those charged by company and non-company houses in other industries. After the strike occurred in 1916, the State Board made a settlement offer on wages awarded, and the Company bettered the award.
In September of 1921, Treasurer Holmes called the foreman together and explained that all salaries from the president down were to be reduced 20 percent, that the stockholders' dividends would be cut; the pay per hour would be reduced by 20 percent, but by increasing hours they could take home more pay than before. He also promised that when business improved, wages, dividends, and salaries would go up together. There was another 10 percent wage cut in 1922. Better business conditions came in 1923; wages, salaries and pensions were raised by 11.11 percent.
The change in wages and cost of living would continuously fluctuate over the next 42 years of operation. The employees of the Plymouth Cordage Company would remain a union of happy employees who thrived on being a community, and even a family.
Bonuses were also paid for piecework beyond normal production expected of all workers.
In addition, there were 250 women employees whose basic wages were $6 per week, and 75 minors who presumably earned even less.
An older example of a Plymouth Cordage Company paystub.
The year of 1937